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Does screen time trigger teen depression?

A teenage girl sitting on a bed looking sad.

Aug. 9, 2019—Parents, take note: Some forms of screen time may pose greater risks to your teen's mental health than others, a new study suggests.

Researchers followed over 3,800 Canadian youth ages 12 to 16 over four years. The kids completed yearly surveys about the amount of time they spent in front of screens each year—including social media, video games, TV and computers. They also answered questions about any symptoms of depression they were experiencing, as well as questions that measured their self-esteem and activity levels.

Kids who spent a higher than average time on social media during any year experienced more symptoms of depression. And when social media and TV time increased from the previous year, kids were more likely to report an increase in their depression symptoms too. Those who spent a higher than average time on the computer over the four-year period also dealt with more symptoms of depression.

But none of this was true when it came to video games.

Toxic comparisons

What makes some kinds of screen time potentially more harmful to young people?

Social media and TV often portray an idealized image of adolescence, the researchers said. When teens compare themselves to other people with seemingly perfect bodies or lives, they may feel worse about their own.

People also have a tendency to seek out the same kinds of content they've consumed in the past. And media providers use algorithms that feed users content similar to what they've chosen before. That can create a reinforcing cycle that might help trigger—and maintain—a depressed mood.

In contrast, playing video games can bring people together, either in person or online. That may explain why a rise in gaming wasn't a predictor of depression, the researchers said. It may even generate positive feelings in young people.

The takeaway for parents: Not all screen time is equal. And even though teens may be on the verge of adulthood, it's still important to monitor—and help them think critically about—how they use their screen time.

The study appeared in JAMA Pediatrics.

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